BEIJING — IMAGINE the irony of a prestigious international conference on fighting corruption being held in a country where a corruption scandal has just occurred.
Then imagine the delegates' shock if they found out the hotel they were staying in was owned by the son of a recently disgraced government official.
For attendees of the Oct. 6 to 10 "Anticorruption and Citizen Participation Conference," such a situation was an uncomfortable reality. And to top off their list of complaints, delegates charged the Chinese government sponsors with censorship.
"It has left a bad taste in my mouth," said one delegate describing Beijing's latest attempt at censorship.
More than 400 delegates from 90 countries converged on the Chinese capital with the intent of forging cooperative strategies to combat corruption. But throughout the event, more than a few delegates couldn't help but compare their meeting to last month's World Conference on Women, which was beset by curtailed freedom of expression, limits on participation, and heavy security.
The event was marked by controversy before it even began when China prevented three Amnesty International delegates from attending. The human rights group called the barring an "act of reprisal" for the group's campaign against human rights violations in China during the women's conference.
The Chinese government also barred journalists from attending and forbade interviews with delegates, a move one participant said cloaked the meeting in secrecy and called into question Beijing's boasts about fighting corruption.
Hoping to clean up its tarnished image and assuage public anger at the corruption of Communist Party officials, leaders launched in January a struggle to curb the spread of corruption within the party.
As China's economy has evolved from centrally planned to one with free-market characteristics, corruption has permeated every nook and cranny of official life. The situation is aggravated by the fact that Beijing is unable to regulate the economic processes it has set in motion.
Ironically, one of the top Chinese officials originally scheduled to address the event was Wang Baosen, Beijing's former deputy mayor. Wang committed suicide in April as he was investigated for what turned out to be the biggest corruption scandal in party history. He was accused of embezzling $37 million.
Several delegates were also shocked to learn that the conference venue was owned by Chen Xiaotong, the son of Beijing's disgraced former Communist Party Secretary Chen Xitong, who was linked to Wang's scam. The older Mr. Chen was removed from his post and stripped of his party membership on charges of abuse of office and corruption only days before the conference began.
Despite the reticence of Chinese officials about dwelling on the scandals that have rocked Beijing for the past year, there was no escaping Chen and Wang's legacy.
China's new keynote speaker, Zhang Siqiang, procurator-general of the Supreme People's Court, hinted at the scandals by saying the party had made "remarkable success uncovering a small number of fairly well-hidden cases of corruption ... Past events have shown ... the Chinese government [is] fully capable of weeding out corruption."
Another issue that vexed delegates was Zhang's incessant warnings that the global fight against graft did not give other countries the right to interfere in China's internal affairs.
"You can't have it both ways," said a frustrated Michael Hershman of Transparency International, a Berlin-based organization specializing in commercial anticorruption education. "If you seek international cooperation, you must give cooperation...." he said.
The row over censorship came to a head when Michael van Hulten, an adviser to the Dutch foreign minister, concluded his address to the conference by saying he had been censored by the Chinese organizers.
Despite submitting a copy three months ago, Mr. van Hulten said, organizers only told him the day before that two paragraphs had been deleted, including statistics that said "gifts" and bribes" cost companies in mainland China about 3 to 5 percent of their turnover.
In a bid to defuse escalating tensions, Zhang Xinze, a conference spokesman, said van Hulten's case was "not unusual" and that other delegates had also been censored.
"We would prefer you not use the word censorship," Zhang said. "We prefer to say it is a gesture of peace and goodwill to mankind."
"After all, we have only done this to protect international relations," he continued. "If they [the speakers] had been allowed to say some of the things they wanted, there would have been a lot of trouble and great damage to international relations."
He said censorship had not only been imposed on the speeches critical of China, but also on remarks about other countries as well, though he refused to identify them. "There is no need to apologize for censorship," Zhang added.